If you work in interactive narrative at all, there was a period recently where you could not go anywhere without people asking your opinion of Bandersnatch, Netflix’s branching-narrative episode of Black Mirror.
Because I am ornery and/or busy and/or was sick part of the relevant time, I didn’t watch it then. Still, I was aware that IF folks felt
- annoyed that people were treating this as massively innovative when there are tens of thousands of works, produced over the past fifty plus years, exploring the possibilities of interactive story, including quite a lot specifically of interactive film if we’re narrowing the gaze to just that
- disappointed that a lot of the choices were kind of basic
- weary at the prospect of yet another Author’s First Interactive Work about free will vs chance, fate, and external control — this theme being (for obvious reasons) not exactly new in the interactive narrative canon
- excited by the hope that this meant big commercial possibilities for interactive story
- like ignoring Bandersnatch and playing more Cragne Manor
I have now watched, and here is my opinion, now that no one is asking.
The short version: I found Bandersnatch slightly more satisfying than a lot of my friends did, perhaps because I happen to have landed on an ending that is, I gather, rare.
At the same time, I had various criticisms of it. Some amount to “this is a first interactive work by someone new to the possibilities, and it’s designed for an audience that is also not particularly literate in interactive fiction, and I guess that’s to be expected.” Others are more serious issues with the messages and themes.
Long version below the fold.
The core story involves a young man named Stefan who is trying to make a computer game version of the eponymous Bandersnatch. The book he’s replicating is a beloved choose-your-own-adventure-style novel by the (criminal, deceased) Jerome F. Davies. Meanwhile, Stefan has been traumatized by the death of his mother in a train crash — a crash for which she would not have been present if she hadn’t been delayed by his search for a stuffed rabbit. (Am I the only one who felt a faint echo of Donnie Darko here? Evidently not.)
Structurally, it’s sort of a time-cave/gauntlet mashup. The branches can lead to rather different interpretations of reality, and some of them produce death/failure pretty early on; however, if you reach an early bad ending, the story automatically encourages you to rewind, in a way that feels like it’s still part of the same overall experience. Stefan wakes over and over again, from things that might be bad endings or might be dreams, in the manner of Groundhog Day. (We don’t have to rewind all the way back to Stefan’s birth, as in Life After Life.)
There’s a lot to appreciate about Bandersnatch. It’s acted well, in a way that reminds me how much is lost from video games with good-but-not-great CGI performances. The production is smooth and glossy, and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way: when the story restarts from the beginning because you’ve reached a suboptimal conclusion, Bandersnatch automatically recaps everything that has happened up to your next meaningful choice point, in a way that recapitulates the conventions of television (appropriately! this is interactive TV!) and feels very accessible. A lot of craft has gone into making this an experience that a television viewer could experience without too much sense of alienation.
Then there’s the portrayal of 1980s gaming Britain. This fits at the nexus of two things I know reasonably well (1980s IF, the UK) but I didn’t directly experience them in combination, and I enjoyed the pairing as both familiar and strange. Carl Muckenhoupt read the British-80s-game-scene portrayal as a bit condescending; I read it more as self-deprecating, as a lot of representations of the recent past tend to be on British TV.
Possibly the choice of setting made me more tolerant than perhaps some other IF fans would be with the couple of narratively vacant choices like what music to listen to. They seem to exist to get the viewer used to making choices early in the story, and to prove that there are perceivable consequences for those choices, without the risk of screwing anything up in an important way. But for me, they also drew my attention to the aesthetic details of this particular setting.
So while I share the view that “which breakfast cereal do you want” is a pretty dull choice to lead off with, I was maybe a little more willing to find value in that than some other viewers.
Here’s something else I did like: a choice framed as a puzzle challenge, but that actually functioned to test the audience’s interests.
At one point (or more than one point, depending on how you play), you can direct Stefan to the basement, where his father has a safe with a hugely ornate keypad lock. You can choose between two combination words to enter. Both of the words are thematically resonant in some way; neither has been unequivocally established as the Right Answer.
So the question is, what are you expecting to find in these drawers? What combination do you think the father would use to lock up his safe? Who do you think he is, and what do you think he’s up to?
And it’s this that determines what you see afterward, and what is “actually” inside.
There are an assortment of issues, both structural and thematic. Others have pointed out how inconsistent the piece is, how it doesn’t seem able to make up its mind about what it wants to explore. Different endings of the story are about radically different things, from the nature of grief to the more grotesque aspects of contemporary entertainment. These segments are presented with different degrees of self-awareness, and arguably none of the themes really has room to breathe.
There is a point in Bandersnatch that invites you to tell the protagonist about Netflix, which feels like the world’s very worst product placement because it’s mandatory, participatory placement… of a product you’ve already bought. Ew.
I mean, I get the idea. I’m supposed to be startled that I the player am an actual character in the story. But I’ve seen this gag a lot of times before, a lot a lot. Even before interactive fiction, even before computers; before If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler cast the reader as a character; before play-going audiences had to clap for Tinkerbell. There are jokes in Aristophanes where the characters on stage notice those dolts sitting in the theatre. It’s not a new gambit.
So what stands out about it is the Netflix self-promotion.
Follow the story down that road, and you soon reach a choice about whether you wouldn’t like to see your entertainment with a bit more action than you’ve seen so far. Your options are “Yes” and “Fuck yeah.” My desired response was “No, I have experienced uncountably many generic fight scenes and I don’t find them especially revealing or engaging or fun, please show me more about people talking to each other.”
I was out of luck there, though. Face-kicking ensued.
Abigail Nussbaum writes about the story’s portrayal of mental illness as both likely violent and a prerequisite to creative success. I share the dislike of this pairing, and I’d recommend a viewing of Nanette for anyone who thinks it’s worth being mentally ill in order to be creative. Perhaps this was less an intentional decision than it was the effect of recasting Lovecraftian tropes about madness-inducing tomes into 1982.
Maybe paradoxically, I did in fact rather like the sequence where Stefan goes to visit Colin, another game-maker who alone seems to be aware of the alternate pasts of the story. Stefan says he’s blocked on his game. Colin tells him (I paraphrase): “You’re in the hole… you’re in a fight with your own head,” and then offers him help.
The help turns out to be LSD, and it goes off into a hallucinatory sequence that ends badly, perhaps because we can’t show people doing drugs on TV without being punished for it.
What I liked, though, was the bit before that: the casual, comradely acknowledgement that being in the midst of a creative project can be hard and confusing, and that what Stefan is experiencing is not unique.
My final ending was the one in which the protagonist manages to rewind time to the day in his childhood when his mother died; find a stuffed bunny without which he refused to leave the house; and join his mother on the crashing train, where he dies. It turns out that he was just remembering/imagining this sequence while actually grown up in his therapist’s office, but remembering it causes his death in the modern day as well.
According to the ending-analyses I linked above, this is the most difficult of endings to reach, but from my perspective it is also the most emotionally resonant. Young Stefan’s stuffed bunny was taken from him, in different versions of the story
- the better to control him and create a memory of trauma as part of a government experiment
- because the stuffed bunny was “sissy”
- because his grandfather thought it was overly permissive to let him have the stuffed bunny (probably also for gender-related reasons)
and the consequence of this deprivation is that he loses his mother, is estranged from his father, and becomes (maybe) the pawn of government control.
To undo this feels like the healing of an old wound. That wound consisted not just of his mother’s death, but of the social/paternal/governmental pressure to be a certain kind of person, to give up his stuffed bunny, to lose the more connected and perhaps the more female-coded parts of himself.
This I found more truthful than any of Bandersnatch’s other questions about whether we do or don’t have free will. We do, I believe; but we are all, also, products of the culture in which we grow up. Our conditioning makes some options seem impossible, or makes them completely invisible to us.
Stefan never has the option to connect meaningfully with Colin, his game-writing idol, in a way that would have really helped him out of the maze. Stefan never has the option to talk open-heartedly with his father, or to make real progress with his therapist. Stefan is always limited by a loss he suffered long ago.
This could have been a stronger piece of work, and it could have made stronger use of the power of interactivity, if it had been written with more experience of interactive affordances, and for an audience with greater interactive literacy.
There’s a tendency for critics from other media to see interactive works as gimmicky, and I think it’s partly because a first interactive work rarely succeeds in escaping the author’s surprise at the nature of his new medium. Common for such pieces to circle around what does it mean to give the player some level of control over where the story goes? and how does that reflect our own levels of choice in the real world? — even though there is much more that interactive stories can communicate.
At the same time, people good at television made Bandersnatch, and that does give it some important strengths. It may reach and intrigue viewers who might never have considered any of the other forms of interactive narrative.